How the Marimba Was Born


(A Popular Ciapianca Legend)

Many, many years ago, woodcutters went deep into the jungle of Chiapas, Mexico, in search of precious wood. Because of the difficult terrain, they could not take their families with them. When they finally reached their work site, the men raised temporary rustic huts of thick branches, roofed with palm leaves.

Night after night, after long days of woodcutting, the men would sit around the fire and talk or sing. The songs they had learned from their ancestors floated away on the night wind. But the men were lonely, and there was sadness and even bitterness in their voices. There was a great need for some cheerful music to accompany the sad choruses that penetrated the jungle.

Among the woodcutters was a handsome young boy named Quetzal Feather. This boy loved the murmur of the jungle more than anything or anyone in the whole world.

One evening as the sun was about to set, Quetzal Feather went deep into the jungle. He was guided by the music of the wind in the foliage. Suddenly he stopped. He thought he heard the sound of voices high in the branches. He went forward cautiously until he was almost at the foot of a tasseled palm. The palm was speaking sadly to a majestic-looking silk-cotton tree.

Quetzal Feather hardly breathed as he listened to what the trees were saying.

“My friend,” said the palm, “because of my great height, I can see the place from where those heartrending songs come. Just before nightfall, I saw the woodcutters with their eyes fixed upon the jungle. How sadly they sang!”

The robust silk-cotton tree shook its branches in protest. “Man should not live sunken in sadness!” it declared.

“We should do something,” responded the palm tree.

Quetzal Feather, hidden in the underbrush, listened in wonderment to the conversation. Then, he heard another voice, shy and nervous. It sent a shiver through him as he strained to catch every word.

“Friends and companions,” said the voice humbly, “the sad songs of the woodcutters have moved me to my very roots. But—perhaps I can do something to help.”

Quetzal Feather poked his head out of the underbrush and saw the tree that had just spoken. It was an hormiguillo tree that stood not far from the stately palm.

The great silk-cotton tree answered first, a little doubtfully. “If you can help, please do so!” it begged.

“Yes,” agreed the palm, “but what can you do? How can you lift the sadness from the woodcutters’ hearts?”

“For a long time now,” began the hormiguillo tree with more self-assurance, “I have been storing under my bark the torrent of nature’s harmony. For a long time I have held the songs of the birds and the cricket, the murmur of wind and rain, and the sound of water cascading over rocks. I have treasured up in me the soft sound of doves in flight and the roar of the tempest.”

Suddenly, before Quetzal Feather had time to realize what the tree had said, beautiful chords began to come from the hormiguillo tree.

“What music is this?” Quetzal Feather asked himself in amazement. “Even the jungle trembles in delight!”

The branches of the palm and the silk-cotton tree swayed in surprised and happy approval.

Trembling with excitement, Quetzal Feather fled from the underbrush. He wished to tell the woodcutters all that he had heard.

But the woodcutters did not believe him, judging him to be a strange and imaginative boy. Wearily they entered their huts for a night’s rest. And Quetzal Feather was left by the dying fire, alone and confused. Then just before sunrise he arose and ran straight as an arrow to the place where he had hidden in the underbrush the night before. The hormiguillo tree was silent now, yet in spite of its silence, some strange love kept Quetzal Feather beside the tree.

Days and nights passed, but the youth, hugging the hormiguillo tree, heard not a single happy note of the heavenly music he had heard before.

The woodcutters were very fond of Quetzal Feather, in spite of what they thought were the boy’s strange imaginings, and they tried to persuade him to leave the tree. But it was of no use. “The tree has bewitched him,” the Old Ones said sadly.

At last, Quetzal Feather became so weak and tired that he fell asleep at the foot of the tree.

“Now,” said the oldest woodcutter, “we can help him. While he sleeps deeply, we will cut the tree down and free him from his bewitchment.”

With their sharpened axes, the woodcutters began to chop at the hormiguillo tree. But to their great surprise and fear, beautiful musical sounds came from the tree at each stroke of their axes.

Quetzal Feather, hearing the music, awoke and clung to the wounded tree that seemed to be moaning with pain.

“Finish cutting me down at once!” begged the hormiguillo tree. “Take my wood. It is full of harmony!”

The next day when Quetzal Feather gathered up the pieces of the fallen tree, he discovered to his great delight that the sticks of wood when tapped by other sticks sent out beautiful happy chords.

Day and night he worked without rest until he had arranged the small pieces of the hormiguillo tree into a rustic instrument.

Thus the noble forest of Chiapas had furnished a lively and happy accompaniment to the tired and sad voices of the woodcutters. The marimba was born, and to this day men search the jungles of Chiapas and Guatemala for the musical wood of the hormiguillo tree.

[photos] Illustrated by Shauna Mooney; photos by Eldon Linschoten